Monday, 6 January 2014


We seem to spend our lives alternately being nostalgic about our past or being in love with “life-transforming” inventions like Twitter which, if you were to pay attention to some people, makes the invention of Gutenberg in the 15th century of just marginal account.

I was reflecting on how retro so many things had become with the resurgence of artefacts and things from previous times which we now think are very contemporary. Things like:-
  • Bicycles, windmills, satchels, teashops, cup-cakes, baking,  porridge, cocktails, hard back books (making a big resurgence), knitting, community singing, cash, colourful ties (Tie Rack’s ties were not, by the way)
All of these are things that, in some way or other, slow things down rather than speed them up and have the smack of authenticity (and the porridge I’m talking about is the real Scott’s Old Fashioned Porage Oats not  Ready Brek.)

And I was pondering further on the story we keep on hearing about how 21st century technology is transforming our lives in quite unprecedented ways.  But our social media, video games devices, robots, iPods and new plastics (made from pig urine) don’t seem quite as life transforming perhaps as the inventive tsunami of the early 20th century which ran up to the outbreak of the First World War.

Here are just a few of those inventions during those thirteen years:-
  • Manned flight, Bakelite,  radio receivers, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, crayons, cornflakes, windscreen wipers, colour photography, safety razors, cellophane, instant coffee, crossword puzzles, bras, zip fasteners, the isolation of Radium, the model T Ford and the theory of relativity.

We speak in awe of Dyson’s bladeless fans today but they don’t quite match the bra do they?  Indeed I think it might be fair to say that the work inventors did in the early 1900s helped define and change modern civilisation in a way that Xbox and Skype simply don’t come close to.

More importantly, perhaps, it wasn’t until I checked up on what had been actually going on in that period that I realised how extraordinarily fertile it had been.

And then on BBC Radio 4’s on Saturday I heard a further piece that was eye opening. At the beginning of the 20th century the global centre for piano production was in Camden Town where there were over 100 factories. (These disappeared after the First World War because most of the skilled piano craftsmen had been killed in France.)

And how did this inventiveness happen?

In part it was through the sheer exuberance of economic success in the USA, Germany, Russia and Britain and the increase in wealth.  In Europe real wages had risen by nearly 50% between 1870 and 1912. But there was something else. Just as a half century earlier had seen a vivid explosion in artistic achievement in all its forms so this narrow decade and a half saw something really special happening – an epidemic of commercial inventiveness.

But how many “eurekas” died in the mud of the battlefields?


Ian said...

Excellent post Richard, although I disagree that bicycles are part of any kind of slow movement...

Unknown said...

Very nice piece Richard

and Happy New Year